Welsh League Ground #7: Rhiw Dda’r (home of Taffs Well FC) – a return to the place where this all began for me

Ground: Rhiw Dda’r (home of Taffs Well FC)
Date of visit: Tuesday 27th February 2018
Fixture: Taffs Well v Cwmamman United
Welsh Football League Division One
Admission: £5
Attendance: c.40

Rhiw Dda’r is a place that I will always have a certain affection for. It was the ground that sparked my interest in Welsh domestic football when Cardiff City visited for a pre-season friendly, it was where I saw my first ever Welsh League game last August when Taffs Well took on Goytre FC. When I set out to ‘discover’ the Welsh League I imagined I would spend many Saturdays at the ‘good hill’, but the world of the Welsh League is surprisingly vast and once the groundhopping bug takes you it is hard to break the novelty of visiting new grounds.

It’s been approximately six months since I watched The Wellmen defeat the Goytre from Gwent on a beautiful late summer afternoon. That visit was also my 3-year old daughter’s football match and when I do fulfil my promise to take her to football again ‘when it’s drier and the weather gets warmer’, Rhiw Dda’r will be among the contenders.

This time the weather couldn’t have been any different as this midweek evening fixture took place in freezing pre-Beast From The East conditions. There have been a few times I’ve stood windswept or rain-soeaked on the side of some Welsh League ground this winter, my hands so numb that my handwriting disintegrates into an even less legible mess and cursing my failure to add another layer of clothing. However, in terms of ‘to the bone’ coldness I can’t ever remember feeling as frozen as I did sat in the Don James stand watching this game. There was a trip to Estonia many years ago, when temperatures were well below zero, that was incredibly cold, but the amount of ‘hot wine’ consumed over four days took most of the edge off. At Rhiw Dda’r the cup of coffee I attempted to carry from the clubhouse didn’t really help, especially as I was shaking so much I spilled half of it over my gloves anyway. Wet gloves and sub-zero temperatures is not a comfortable combination.

Nevertheless, my fondness for Rhiw Dda’r and Taffs Well remains. It’s a picturesque ground in the daylight, packed with verdant prettiness, easy to get to and a place with a really friendly vibe. All the volunteers I’ve come into contact are welcoming, there’s a good clubhouse and facilities at the ground are fantastic for what is essentially a village club.

Elevated grandstands on each side of the pitch afford spectators a fantastic view of the pitch. The decision to raise the seating has to be celebrated. There are some Welsh League grounds that have their seating at pitch level, which is fine, but that foresight to lift the spectator’s eye above pitch level enhances the experience of watching the game from my point of view. Floodlights make these midweek games happen, not all Welsh League grounds have them, which I believe is a crutch for clubs. A sign, for me, of a club with a progressive attitude towards ground facilities, but surprisingly not part of the FAW’s incoming Tier 2 ground regulations. The Rhiw Dda’r pitch still shines with the evidence of last summer’s overhaul by the Cardiff City groundstaff.

The Taffs Well FC story is another of the success brought about by hard-working club officials and the determination to provide the best possible facilities for the club. Taffs Well is a small village of less than 4000 people surrounded by much bigger urban areas (Cardiff to the south, Pontypridd to the north and Caerphilly to the east), yet their football club has punched well above its weight for many years and those working behind the scenes have built a ground and facilities that is probably the envy of some of their local rivals.

Formed in 1946 following a meeting of local ‘interested persons’ at a local church, Taffs Well FC joined the Welsh League for the 1977-78 season and have retained that status ever since. The Wellmen have been ever-present in the top flight of the Welsh League since the 2004/5 season. Taffs Well have never won the Welsh League, their best finishes coming in 2012 and 2014 when they finished runners-up to Cambrian & Clydach Vale BGC and Monmouth Town respectively. The Wellmen’s biggest success has come in the Welsh Football League Challenge Cup, which they have won four times (2012, 2013, 2015, 2016). They have also reached the final of the FAW Trophy on two occasions (1987 and 1995).

Recent seasons have seen inconsistent performances on the pitch and this has continued into this campaign with a fair bit of re-structuring off the field meaning this has become a season of transition.

Long-term manager Lee Bridgeman left his position as first team manager in October last year (taking up the role of Director of Football at Rhiw Dda’r) and was replaced by his assistant Adie Harries. That appointment didn’t work out and Harries left the club after less than half a dozen games, with Bridgeman re-assuming his role as first team manager, but sharing the responsibility with Nana Baah (the former Welsh League winning boss of Caerau Ely) and former Aberbargoed Buds manager Adrian Needs.

Taffs Well do possess a talented side and their front-line, on their day, can pose problems for any side in the Welsh League. Consistency is evidently the issue though and it will be interesting to observe whether the Bridgeman-Baah combination can get the best from the squad and get The Wellmen challenging again at the top end of Welsh League Division One next season.

Beyond that I’m not sure what the future has in store for The Wellmen. Structural changes to the Welsh pyramid will effectively end the Welsh Football League’s existence. My understanding is that Taffs Well have always been a proud Welsh Football League club, I do not know whether there is an appetite, or even the feasibility, at Taffs Well to aspire towards Welsh Premier League promotion. As it stands Taffs Well’s proactive approach off the field in recent years means they are more than equipped to remain at Tier 2, but the gap between that and tier 1 won’t really diminish with either the re-structure or the incoming Tier 2 ground regulations.

What may be lost for clubs like Taffs Well is a sense of context with no Welsh League to speak of. The competition provided a status and meaning for many clubs that were ambitious but weren’t necessarily capable of pushing for the top of the Welsh pyramid. From speaking to Lee Bridgeman last year for Y Clwb Pel-droed I get the feeling winning the Welsh League is a big ambition for the club, but it looks likely that after next season this aspiration will no longer be open to Welsh League clubs as Division One integrates into the FAW Championship South.

There is a bigger picture at play, but I cannot but help wonder what will actually be in it for many clubs operating at tier 2 in the re-structured pyramid. Ultimately, time will tell. From what I have seen and know of Taffs Well FC, however the ground lies, I have no doubt they will make every effort of having their best go at it.

*

Taffs Well 0-1 Cwmamman United (Ashley Curtis 43)

Having beaten Cwmbran Celtic 3-0 the weekend before, were Taffs Well beginning to show signs of their true potential? A home game against bottom-club Cwmamman United gave The Wellmen a chance to make it consecutive wins in the search for a bit of momentum during a season that is drifting towards mid-table obscurity. For Cwmamman, their Division One survival is at stake. Without a league win since August and following a 5-2 home defeat to fellow relegation battlers Caerau Ely prior to this they had slumped to bottom place in Division One. This had the smell of home win all over it.

Taffs Well did start brighter, firing a few shots at goal without testing the away goalkeeper. The pacey Marcus Jones looked a threat down the left and put some dangerous crosses into the box, but on those occasions Leon Jacka and Sam Johnson in the middle couldn’t capitalise.

Cwmamman United came with a clear plan to carry out the basics of defending well, being organised and playing the percentages in attack. As they grew into the game they enjoyed some good positions without really creating any chances, but after surviving that opening twenty minutes of Taffs Well dominance they defended comfortably and by the half hour the home side were resorting to long balls from the back into well-marked forwards.

Despite having most of the game in the first-half, Cwmamman struck what turned out to be the match winner just before half-time. A good advantage from referee Leigh Jones allowed Ashley Curtis to spring the Taffs Well offside trap and one-on-one with the home keeper, the forward finished with fantastic composure. It came as no surprise because Curtis was Cwmamman’s best player when I watched them at Ton Pentre earlier in the season.

There may have been a half-time roasting because Taffs Well started the second-half with real purpose. Jamal Roberts forced an acrobatic save from Rob Jones in goal for Cwmamman. Sam Johnson uncharacteristically squandered a couple of good chances to score and Marcus Jones had a free run at goal, but took to long too get a shot away. The Wellmen didn’t capitalise on this period though, confidence in their build-up went and a lack of movement in the final third meant it was back to long balls from the back.

Nana Baah made three attacking substitutions but to no avail. The visitors saw out the game without too many anxious moments and by the celebrations at the final whistle it was obvious how much this long-awaited win meant.

*

Taffs Well FC is always a good trip and very convenient for me, just ten minutes down the road. My only regret is the scope of this 2018 groundhop means it may be another six months before I drop by Rhiw Dda’r again.

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